An internal U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) document at the crux of allegations that officials at the agency conspired to circumvent federal environmental laws in aim of expediting politically driven construction projects at the Peace Bridge is raising a host of new questions. Fifteen months after the GSA quietly green-lighted a pet project of the Cuomo Administration, that federal environmental review is now being made public — and it has residents in an uproar. (GSA Categorical Exclusion 2012.)
The report, known as a “Categorical Exclusion Checklist Document,” was intended to satisfy GSA’s environmental review obligations for the Commercial Warehouse expansion “lease construction” project at the Peace Bridge, as per the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). But many allege that this document not only violates NEPA, but also other federal laws, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
“This is an absolute outrage,” said Kathy Mecca, president of the Columbus Park Neighborhood Association. “Not only did GSA hide this document from the public, but they shamelessly rigged it with misleading and falsified information to guarantee approval.”
GSA officials signed the 35-page Categorical Exclusion on November 15, 2012, and despite claims that the document was “shared with local stakeholders,” GSA did not make the document available to West Side residents or members of the Buffalo Common Council.
“I’m shocked that GSA bureaucrats had the gall to issue such a dishonest, stilted environmental review,” Mecca said. “How can Burke and Pierson go to sleep each night knowing what they’ve done to us?” Thomas Burke (GSA) and Doug Pierson (Louis Berger Group) were signature authorities on the contested report.
Mecca’s concern stems from “brazenly false information” that “GSA used to reach a predetermined outcome.” And she’s not alone.
“This is the first I’ve seen of this document,” said Council Member Joseph Golombek. “The fact that GSA didn’t share it with the city or with West Side residents is just another example of secrecy exercised by a federal agency at the expense of Buffalo residents. If this document was valid, why didn’t GSA make it available to the public in the first place?”
While GSA may not have made their contested Categorical Exclusion available to the public, one person who did get a copy is Congressman Brian Higgins. Higgins’ office issued a press release announcing GSA’s environmental approval on November 16, 2012, and the very next day, The Buffalo News reported that Higgins’ office had given The News a copy of the document.
However, when asked to comment on the document after Monday’s Peace Bridge preclearance ceremony, Higgins denied seeing it.
“I have never seen this document and I’m not aware of it,” Higgins said, “Please forward it to my office.”
What’s a Categorical Exclusion?
NEPA has three designated levels of environmental review: Categorical Exclusion; Environmental Assessment (EA); and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Categorical Exclusions are the lowest possible level of review and involve minimal investigation and no public outreach; they are generally reserved for minor federal actions.
If an agency discovers an “extraordinary circumstance” while completing a Categorical Exclusion, the agency is obligated to initiate a higher level of environmental review — either an EA or EIS. If no extraordinary circumstance is discovered, however, the agency is not required to conduct further review.
For their review of the Commercial Warehouse expansion project, GSA completed what is known as a Categorical Exclusion Checklist Document — a list of 14 “yes or no” questions, the answers to which are designed to expose whether “extraordinary circumstances” exist for a given project.
“The only thing extraordinary about this document is that GSA thinks it’s acceptable to publish boldface lies in a federal environmental review that impacts the lives of thousands of children,” Mecca said. “It’s criminal, and [Dan] Tangherlini should be ashamed that this illicit behavior took place right under his nose and he hasn’t done a damn thing about it.” Tangherlini is GSA’s top official, appointed by President Barack Obama in April 2012. Neither Tangherlini (pictured below) or his spokesperson, Dan Cruz, responded to repeated requests for comment.
The “illicit” document
While children struggled to breathe amidst the rancid air in Buffalo’s West Side, a team of GSA officials in New York City was hard at work from June to November 2012 developing their Categorical Exclusion for the Commercial Warehouse expansion project at the Peace Bridge. It’s clear from reading the document that its authors knew of the suffering endured by West Side residents — why else did those authors consistently skew, falsify, and omit crippling information that would have stopped this project dead, while steadily inflating and fabricating details that supported their cause?
From the very beginning, an informed reader sees this document’s fatal flaws. In the introduction, GSA acknowledges that they can only use a Categorical Exclusion to satisfy their NEPA obligations on a lease construction project when all of the following conditions are met:
- The structure and proposed use are substantially in compliance with local planning and zoning and any applicable State or Federal requirements;
- The proposed use will not substantially increase the number of motor vehicles at the facility;
- The site and the scale of construction are consistent with those of existing adjacent or nearby buildings; and
- There is no evidence of community controversy or other environmental issues.
Of the four criteria, number 2 should have given that GSA team pause. Number 4 should have stopped them dead — not only because there was ample evidence of community controversy documented in media reports at the time this Categorical Exclusion was in the works, but because GSA officials in Washington, DC, had documented the existence of “other environmental issues” and were so concerned about those issues that they convened an inter-agency taskforce to specifically investigate and identify a fair and equitable solution.
After the introductory section, the remainder of GSA’s Categorical Exclusion is dedicated to justifying why the Commercial Warehouse expansion project meets all four of the criteria noted above, offering instance after instance of self-incriminating evidence that GSA dodged its obligations under federal environmental law. This is evidenced in GSA’s detailed responses to the 14 checklist questions. Below are a few examples:
Question B: Is the action likely to have results that are inconsistent with locally desired social, economic, or other environmental conditions?
Residents of the West Side have repeatedly expressed opposition to all projects associated with the Peace Bridge. This opposition has been widely reported by the media and in materials the community has sent to GSA over the last few years, according to Mecca, meaning that GSA knew that a project proposed for the Peace Bridge would be inconsistent with their desired social, economic, and other environmental conditions, a possible motive for GSA’s secrecy.
Question F: Is the action likely to generate controversy on environmental grounds?
West Side residents have repeatedly expressed opposition to all projects associated with the U.S. plaza of the Peace Bridge, and GSA was aware that significant controversy exists on environmental grounds among nearby residents before issuing their Categorical Exclusion. In fact, in an email to colleagues, GSA’s regional administrator Denise Pease herself called this a “SENSITIVE” project before urging Madeline Caliendo, GSA’s chief civil rights official, to kill an inter-agency environmental justice investigation into the West Side childhood asthma rate.
Question G: Is there a high level of uncertainty about the action’s environmental effects?
GSA knew of the ongoing environmental impacts of commercial truck processing at the Peace Bridge before issuing their Categorical Exclusion Checklist Document. The agency also knew of other related projects taking place at the Peace Bridge. GSA’s environmental review failed to examine the cumulative impacts of all related projects, and therefore there exists uncertainty regarding the environmental effects of the Commercial Warehouse expansion project.
Question H: Is the action likely to do something especially risky to the human environment?
Again, GSA knew of the ongoing environmental impacts of commercial truck processing at the Peace Bridge before issuing their environmental review. The agency also knew of other related projects taking place at the Peace Bridge. The agency failed to examine the cumulative impacts of all related projects, and therefore the human environmental risks associated with the Commercial Warehouse expansion project are scientifically unknown.
Question I: Is the action part of an ongoing pattern of actions (whether under the control of GSA or others) that are cumulatively likely to have adverse effects on the human environment?
GSA had full knowledge that the Commercial Warehouse expansion project was part of an ongoing pattern of actions being taken by the PBA and affiliate organizations — Sam Hoyt, then-chair of the Peace Bridge Authority (PBA), sent a June 2012 letter to Pease explaining this. In fact, the PBA has over $175 million in projects now in the pipeline, and the State of New York has initiated the first phase of a multi-million dollar effort to significantly expand the U.S. Peace Bridge plaza. And Rep. Brian Higgins is still calling for a new bridge. The likelihood that any combination of these actions could have adverse cumulative impacts on the human environment was unknown at the time GSA issued their Categorical Exclusion Checklist Document and remains unknown today for lack of study.
Question N: Is the action likely to have some other adverse effect on public health and safety or on any other environmental media or resources that are not specifically identified above.
GSA had full knowledge of the ongoing adverse public health and safety conditions associated with the commercial trucks that use the Peace Bridge—after all, they spearheaded the inter-agency environmental justice investigation into the West Side childhood asthma rate. However, in their response to this question, GSA argues that the Commercial Warehouse expansion project will result in the faster processing of vehicles at the bridge and therefore a reduction in toxic diesel engine emissions from commercial trucks. This is a baseless argument that has never been scientifically proven or examined in the context of the Peace Bridge, and yet GSA makes this claim as if it were fact. The faster processing of vehicles at the Peace Bridge is likely to attract more traffic to the bridge than currently exists (there are three other nearby bridges for the Peace Bridge to draw traffic from), resulting in greater air pollution than what already exists.
As evidenced by the responses in GSA’s Categorical Exclusion for the Commercial Warehouse expansion project, GSA not only violated NEPA, but they too violated the Administrative Procedures Act, which governs the ways agencies are to carry out federal legislation. In addition, by circumventing their NEPA obligations for this particular project — located in a low-income and minority community — GSA violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, given the agency’s track record of conducting far more thorough environmental reviews in wealthier and whiter communities across the country.